On September 4, the Obama administration’s efforts to build consensus on military action against Syria received a boost as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee cleared an attack on the Syrian government, provided it was limited to 60 days and did not involve the use of U.S. troops on the ground. Even as President Obama attempted to use his G20 trip to garner greater international support for the strike, the Chinese Foreign Ministry came out with its clearest statement on the situation. It once again reiterated its reservations against “unilateral strikes by any country” and advocated going to the United Nations for a resolution acceptable to all countries. In a throwback to the four-point proposal on Syria it laid out last November, China said it still believed a political resolution was the “only realistic way to solve the Syrian issue.” At the same time, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called for any party resorting to chemical warfare to accept responsibility for its actions. Given these circumstances, what is Beijing’s policy on Syria, and what is likely to be China’s reaction in the event of an eventual strike?
Q1: What are China’s interests in Syria? Do they completely coincide with Moscow’s? Are Chinese interests completely in opposition to those of the United States?
A1: China’s interests in Syria can be described as non-vital—the International Monetary Fund placed trade between the two countries at a mere $2.2 billion in 2009. Though China ranks as one of Syria’s biggest importers, for China, the volume as part of China’s total trade is miniscule. Again, while China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) partners with Syria’s main oil producing consortium, the Al-Furat Petroleum Company, energy needs are unlikely to decide China’s Syria policy. After all, Saudi Arabia—China’s biggest energy supplier—has widely expressed its wishes to see the Assad regime toppled and is believed to be arming the rebels.
Russia’s ties with Syria on the other hand are long and deep. It is the largest arms suppliers to the Assad regime, currently holding contracts to the tune of $4 billion; this is a mutually beneficial association as Syria features on the list of top 10 weapons buyers for Russia. In contrast, though there have been reports of rebels being supplied with Chinese weapons through third-party countries, there has been no evidence of China directly arming either side. Moreover, while China has minimum exposure in the Syrian energy sector, Russia has invested billions of dollars in the sector since the Soviet era.
Despite the apparent divergence, China and Russia have moved in tandem on Syria. They have repeatedly vetoed resolutions aimed at the Assad regime in the UN Security Council and are likely to veto again if the current proposal seeking authorization for strikes goes to a vote at the United Nations. While China has far less at stake in Syria than Russia, the decision corresponds with the way Beijing and Moscow have earlier stalled or diluted West-led resolutions in the United Nations against rogue regimes like those in Burma and North Korea. A key motive is to present a united anti-West alliance to counter international influence by the United States and its allies. Solidarity on Syria is a continuation of the closeness that Russia and China have sought to exhibit this past year since the Xi administration has come to power. Moreover, given that Russia has more to lose if the current regime is overthrown, it is plausible that China views this as an opportunity to gain a chit it could cash in with Moscow later, for a cause closer to its heart.
Although Beijing opposes the use of chemical weapons, its concern does not rise to the level in the United States, and China strongly objects to any action against Syria without approval by the United Nations. Though Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the United States has called this a “crime against humanity.” China, on the other hand, claims that a sovereign state’s rights over its internal matters are supreme. It is also noteworthy here that the closest China came to backing a strike on a country was in Libya, where it did not block the move, but did not support it either—it only abstained from voting.
Q2: What are China’s real worries?
A2: China’s opposition to strikes by the United States against Assad is as much a matter of ideology as strategy. Beijing’s real worries stem from the U.S. ability to gather support for external intervention and the use of military force where it deems necessary. For China, this is a reinforcement of an international order raised and run by the United States. Another worry for China is that every such instance of international intervention led by the United States creates precedence for action against autocratic regimes. While the problems in China are far removed from the ones that plague countries like Syria, Libya, or Egypt, China views these instances of intervention as interference in a country’s “internal affairs,” which Beijing opposes as a matter of policy and principle. Though they supported the UN resolution imposing a no-fly zone in Libya, the Chinese objected to NATO’s expansion of the mandate from protecting civilians to arming rebels to oust Qaddafi and drew lessons from that episode. Considering that China still imports almost half of its oil from the Middle East, it has reason to be worried if the region is engulfed in a fresh bout of trouble.
China is also worried about the possibility that militant Islamists may gain control in Syria once the current regime is toppled. This fear is further aggravated by the rise of Islamists in countries like Libya and Egypt after the fall of Qaddafi and Mubarak respectively. Islamist groups have already pledged support to rebels in Syria. Some of these, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq, have both been linked to al Qaeda and have voiced their keenness to see an Islamic state under sharia law in Syria after Assad. Moreover, Syria’s closest and perhaps only ally in the Islamic world, Iran, is known to have connections to and influence in Gilgit-Baltistan, the disputed area in Pakistan adjacent to Xinjiang. It is likely that if Assad were overthrown, elements in Iran would continue to be close to the new government in Syria. China has worked hard to curtail the influence of Islamist “separatists” in Xinjiang and is keen to avoid a situation where the rebels in Xinjiang find another source for both ideological and material support.
Q3: What is Beijing’s position on the use of force by the United States?
A3: As mentioned above, China’s opposition to the use of force by the United States is both strategic and ideological. It has always viewed any U.S. use of force as an attempt to spread American hegemony. Though the Obama administration set the use of chemical weapons by the regime as the red line for intervention in the early days of the conflict, China has stuck to its line of approving intervention only when vetted by the United Nations. Emphasizing the need for a political resolution, it even offered its own four-point proposal last November. Though lacking in crucial details, such as the future of Assad and key figures in his administration, the proposal expanded upon the central role of the United Nations in any acceptable solution. It suggested a cease-fire through mediation by peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and the subsequent establishment of a transitional government with active diplomatic and political involvement of regional players, especially the Arab League. Even in its most recent comment on September 4, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stuck to its stance, saying China is “gravely concerned that some country may take unilateral military action” and calling for any action taken by the international community to “comply with the purposes of the UN Charter. While admitting that it was worried about reports of chemical weapons being used in the ongoing conflict, China has refused to accept that as adequate reason for allowing military strikes in the country. Significantly though, unlike Russia, it has not dismissed the proof of use of chemical weapons provided by the United States, United Kingdom, and France.
Q4: What will be the likely impact on Sino-U.S. relations if Washington attacks Syria?
A4: Xi Jinping’s first few months as the head of the new Chinese administration have been marked by an uptick in efforts to stabilize and improve relations with the United States, which would enable Xi to focus his attention on economic reform at home. This very visible effort began in Xi’s visit to the United States in February 2012, even before he took over as general secretary of the Communist Party, and continued with the “shirt-sleeves summit” between the Xi and Obama in California this past June. It is unlikely that China would allow a strike on Syria to turn into a cause célèbre in the relationship, especially given Syria’s non-vital nature in China’s security. An apt historical parallel would be the invasion of Iraq—more so because a number of Chinese newspapers have claimed that intelligence about Syria could be as flawed as that about Iraq in 2003. While China opposed the attack on Iraq, pressing for continued UN weapons inspections, it did not move to alter its relations with the United States in any major way after the invasion. In all likelihood, it will continue to protest, but will fall silent in the event of a strike on Syria, and even if Assad is subsequently overthrown and a messy battle for control ensues, choose instead to see who emerges on top.